Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Bahraini Opposition: At Once Too Radical, and Not Radical Enough

Much is being made of a new joint statement (titled "The Manama Document": Arabic; English) released by five of Bahrain's remaining opposition groups--the Islamic Action Society would have made six, but it's hard to help craft joint statements when your organization has been dissolved and you're sitting in prison--and unveiled with great fanfare at a press conference in Umm al-Hasam presided over by 'Ali Salman. Despite a blunt preamble decrying the authoritarianism, corruption, and other deficiencies inherent in Bahrain's present system, the statement outlines what should be by now a familiar list of demands:
  1. An elected government with mechanisms to confirm and remove ministers;
  2. Revised electoral districts (see my map of the current, ethnically-gerrymandered districts) and increased independence of electoral institutions;
  3. A new single-chamber parliament with sole lawmaking powers;
  4. A fair and transparent judiciary; and
  5. An end to Shi'a exclusion from the police and armed services.
Moreover, the statement also singles out three other issues--political naturalization, discrimination, and media impartiality--that it says must be tackled "concurrently." But since, again, these are the same demands that al-Wifaq and others have been forwarding for the past few months, this portion of the "Manama Document" should not have caught anyone off-guard.

As far as I can tell, the domestic and international attention the statement has received is a function mainly of its timing, coming as it does in the same week that Bahrain introduced its new elected parliament and supposedly started down its path toward political normalcy. That the country's opposition groups have now reaffirmed their commitment not only to the demands themselves but also to continued popular protest as a way to achieve them seems to have served as a useful reminder that, notwithstanding some well-placed PR in recent days and weeks, the political deadlock in Bahrain has not actually been resolved.

Yet despite this overt attempt to rally and reinvigorate the opposition, rather than renewed confidence one senses in this "Manama Document" not a small whiff of desperation--and for good reason. At the same time that al-Wifaq and its leadership (which with the partial exception of Wa'ad is the only group that matters of the five) has come under intense government pressure in recent weeks for being nothing more than a Bahraini Hizballah--at the same time, it is also in real danger of losing its core constituency to groups and movements seen as more effective and/or less willing to compromise on what some still see as the core aim of the "revolution," namely the unconditional end of the Al Khalifa monarchy. In other words, the moderate opposition is caught between Charybdis and Scylla: a government skewering it for being too radical, a constituency threatening to abandon it for not being radical enough.

The first of these--the precarious position of al-Wifaq as a tolerated opposition movement now that it has shirked "the official channels of politics," as they say--was discussed at length in the previous post, so little more needs to be said. I will add only that I have since received some unofficial confirmation from sources in Bahrain of my suspicions expressed there that al-Wifaq risks being targeted again for wholesale dissolution such as was attempted in April.

In the meantime, one need not look far to find evidence of the government's media blitz against al-Wifaq--and since yesterday against its "Manama Document" statement. Employing its typical indefinite noun + passive verb headline construction, the Gulf Daily News reports "Group condemned":
A BAHRAINI opposition group has been blasted by the government, which accused it of trying to impose its will on the rest of the population.

The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) said Al Wefaq National Islamic Society had "no right" to force its demands or dictate its conditions on the nation.

Etc., etc. You can fill in the rest.

Al-Watan's coverage is even better. Sawsan al-Sha'ir's editorial from yesterday starts, "Hezbollah is the last one entitled to speak of national unity. Its structure, history, mindset and practices have nothing to do with national unity. On the contrary, they all tend to thwart it."

And her article from today: "The statement published by Hezbollah titled “Political Societies” reveals that the party is still far away from reality."

Still others, of course, abound. (Also, don't miss the other popular pro-government link going around: MEMRI's English translation of some Bahraini cleric's sermon from March in which he says that the uprising will lead to a "state of the Mahdi.")

Yet even if al-Wifaq somehow manages to avoid the fate of Wa'ad, the Islamic Action Society, and other now-defunct political societies, still it must face a no less difficult uphill battle in convincing ordinary Bahrainis that it remains their best hope for achieving political reform. And, as evidenced by the considerable popular push-back in response to its "Manama Document," one gets the impression that this argument is becoming harder and harder for the group to make.

One well-commented post on an opposition forum is titled, "Sh. Abd al-Wahhab Hussain warns the people against the Manama Document." Another discusses to a great deal of popular agreement "The Secretary General and His Fatal Mistake." Still another implores readers to "save the revolution from some of the political parties." Finally: "The Manama Document or the Humiliation Document?" ("humiliation" rhymes with "al-Manama" in Arabic). And so on.

Two details in particular have caught the attention of these and other commentors: first, the abandonment of the slogan "Fall of the Regime" for the obviously more measured "Reform of the Regime," which the statement identifies as one of the opposition's guiding principles. In fact, however, this change was made at least as early as mid-August, as it forms the basis of this post's title.

The second and more substantively important part of the statement not lost on commentors is its proposed "Road to a Solution":
Undoubtedly, the wrong practices of threatening people demanding reforms and democracy could not [succeed]. Hence, the only [way] forward is that of a dialogue between the authorities and opposition forces for the goal of achieving democracy, based on the seven principles outlined by the crown prince on 13 March 2011. Amongst others, the principles press for a government representing the will of the people, an elected parliament with comprehensive powers, and fair electoral districts. Still, the dialogue should take place with international guarantees.

[The] outcome of the dialogue should lead to a new constitutional framework resulting from [majority] approval via a constituent assembly, [which is] the best possible option, or a referendum, as put forward by the crown prince on 13 March 2011.
In other words, the parties to the statement (all of which were part of the seven-group alliance formed in February at the height of unrest that ultimately rejected unconditional dialogue with the crown prince) are now asking--begging, even--8 months later for the chance to take Salman's deal.

Unfortunately, things don't work like that. In the first place, the crown prince is only now starting to recover from the devastating political damage caused by the failure of his February attempt at dialogue. His renewed participation at this point is almost certainly out of the question. More fundamentally, however, that deal was offered at the height of the anti-government movement's bargaining power; whereas we're now arguably at the height of the government's.

In this I am reminded of a Yemeni antique shopkeeper who, when I told him his $100 price tag was too high but that I might change my mind later and return, said in reply: "If you come back tomorrow the price will be $400."

Al-Watan and Sawsan al-Sha'ir have one thing right, anyway: the Bahraini opposition's statement is "still far away from reality." And sadly, that political reality now appears stacked against them.

Update: Bonus coverage from Al-Watan: one of Bahrain's several al-Dawasir MPs has called upon al-Wifaq to condemn the fake Iranian terrorist plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Because well, you know, al-Wifaq are Shi'a and Iran is Shi'a. No word whether he is also asking them to apologize for the Iranian hostage crisis.

Update 2: So this update is going to have to be a doozy. First, Bassiouni gave another interview over the weekend--you would think he would have learned by now--to a local Chicago public radio station (his home university is DePaul) in which he seemed to cast principal blame upon protesters and doctors for Bahrain's post-February events and expressed support for the trials and verdicts that have proceeded thus far. (Direct link to .mp3 audio here.) Like everyone else, the Gulf Daily News was quick to pick up on his comments, today reporting: "Commission head backs death penalty verdict." Anyone want to take bets as to the conclusions of the BICI final report?

Next, Bahrain TV aired an extended news segment/documentary purporting to reveal what *REALLY* happens in Bahrain's villages during protests, etc. The video immediately caught peoples' attention for a comically fake segment in which a BTV "reporter" supposedly tries to interview some thuggish looking Shi'a youth, who dance around like monkeys and gently throw rocks (I can almost hear the cameraman say, "Don't actually hit us, you idiots!"). I suggest you watch the video (or at least the thug interview starting at 4:45):

The segment is so hilariously done, in fact, that some intrepid young Shi'a actors have taken it upon themselves to create a mock version:

From the BBC, Frank Gardner has somehow earned the good graces of the Bahraini leadership, who not only received him personally on a visit to the parliament's opening ceremony (his report here), but also has managed to ride around with riot police and visit a detention facility.

A new contender has emerged to take the place of the once notorious pro-government Bahrain Independent blog run by Saqer al-Khalifah and friends: the Bahrain Views website (any relation to Riffa Views?) which has published the results of its (I assume) 2-year empirical investigation into Iran's foreign agenda titled "Iran Orders Attacks on Saudi Interests Worldwide."

Finally, from The Economist, a cartoon for the road:

Update 3: Another good watch, even if you don't read Arabic: a militant anti-Iran/-Shi'a Sunni group has produced a 20 minute-long "Letter to the Gulf Rulers" calling for tough action against the Shi'a traitors/heretics/bad guys:

Update 4: A Eurasia Review piece offers some updates on the U.S.'s proposed weapons sale to Bahrain. The headline says it all: "Bahrain PM Says Supports Human Rights, As US Arms Deal In Offing." Khalifa bin Salman is quoted as telling a visiting U.S. congressional delegation--the point of which is presumably that the Obama Administration can now say it sent a "fact-finding team" to Bahrain to make sure its hummers and TOW missiles will be put to good use--that the $53 million contract is "aimed at protecting the country from a potential attack 'or nefarious activity by countries like Iran.'"
Which is approximately as disingenuous as his other quotation mentioned in the piece: “[the PM] stressed the importance of dialogue – as a strategic choice – and the protection of human rights and liberties as the cornerstone of Bahrain’s reform policies.”
Well, at least he is honest in saying that he's not interested in dialogue apart for its strategic political value.


  1. Great roundup as usual, except that video is not of Isa Qasim, but of some random cleric whose name no one seems to know. Of course, trust MEMRI to pick up an obscure statement and try to present it as representative of a wider movement.

  2. Ah well there you go. I actually was sent the link but didn't see the video because I don't have the Windows Media Player plugin (honestly who uses that?). I guess I erroneously read between the lines. Thanks.

  3. It became obvious more than two months ago that the demands of the oppisition parties are unrealistic looking from a pro-government and pragmatic point of view .However If you would ask me , im actually hoping (as a Bahraini) that the government dissolves AL wifaq for a simple reason, I think it would be like shooting themselves in the leg (reminds me of how they tried to frame mansoor al jamri and take him off AL wasat and how that was nice PR) , because they would force AL wefaq to two options with no third: 1. To go underground like they practically were in the nineties and therby practically merging or at least making them closer to the 14th FEB youth movements .or 2.To wither away for the most part like the Alliance for the republic pretty much is now , and in both of those cases it would still mean the end of any democratic PR they can send oustide (and we all know how much the GOB likes their PR).

  4. So, Justin. Update your 'about me'! Bah gov dissolving Wefaq will bring the gov much more trouble than they can manage. Although many within are sorely tempted to do it I am sure. It will immediately escalate tensions. The 'street' will emerge and it will get really nasty from the Coalition of Feb 14th. Yes, there would have to be another crackdown and that brings with it the inevitable international outcry and pressure - which is the only real lever the 'opposition' has right now. But far better to paint Wefaq as Hizbollah - so easy, so visceral to many pro gov supporters and so pliable without any evidence or fact. 'Hizbollah in Bahrain....' is all you have to say and no need to end the sentence.

    Balance this new Hizbollah onslaught (it has picked up in recent weeks) with the imminent publication of 2 reports from BICI, one on the alleged shrine destructions and the other Big Daddy report.

    And for a moment, a dreamlike instance of implausibility, consider a hypothetical outcome: the BICI Big Daddy report splinters the 'regime', say for example clearing King, CP and immediate (1st wife) relatives and a few others, but implicating other family members in suspected crimes against humanity. Now what a game-changer that would be...but as I say, a dreamlike instance of implausibility.

    My point is it is difficult to see a long term strategic outcome while we wait for the report from BICI.

    Endnote: Squitieri's piece is not 'well-placed' as it's Huff Post - and anyone can get an article in there. His problem is his credibility - he was caught stealing other journalists' work, hence he is no longer a news journo as USA Today, or anywhere else. This tarnishes his output more than the dubious content. I wish him well but pumping propaganda is pretty low down the list of respectable activities. It does illustrate a major problem though, they are having real problems getting a decent media presentation together. It is all the harder when the raw material is difficult to mold. But i guess if life gives you lemons, and you can't make lemonade, you throw them back at the 'street'.

  5. Thanks for the comment. Not sure what the 'update your "about me"' means. Anyway I think we'll find out soon about their al-Wifaq plans. As for the Huff post piece, I also had in mind the WSJ op-ed etc., not to say it was taken any more seriously (by serious people that is) than the Huffpost piece. Between this, the election PR, and the 'first female blah blah in the Gulf' type stories, Qorvis et al. have been earning their keep.

  6. See the 'about me, Justin Gengler' box on right hand side of page. Undoubtedly they are working the various media angles. But their planted pieces just get demolished by established, credible journos. Add to that the obscurity of their media agents outside of DC. It all adds up to very little plausible traction in media terms. Time will tell soon enough where we are headed. Yesterday's Manama paper was also interesting because of the rage with which it was delivered at the PC. But I think we are really in the hinterland until BICI reports. Hold the front page..... !

  7. Ah, right: you mean that it still says I'm in DC etc. Yea, I guess I'd forgot about that little blurb.

  8. So, prev Anonymous commenter, are you suggesting that we either live in distant hope that the BICI report will do the sensible thing and attribute blame where most switched on people think it lies and exonerate the King/CP/ people who can get us out of this mess, OR we sit and watch the situation get more frustrated and radicalized? Justin, do you agree?

  9. I interpreted Anon's comments as saying that it's difficult to predict the government's likely next steps regarding al-Wifaq right now because of the impending BICI report, which depending on what it concludes and who it implicates may change the political dynamics significantly. I would agree, though I think the ultimate findings are likely to be much more modest--i.e., "the government was wrong, protesters were wrong, blah blah.". As for al-Wifaq, however, I think I am probably less sanguine than the commentor.

  10. OK as the 1st anon, I am saying exactly what J said " ... it's difficult to predict the government's likely next steps regarding al-Wifaq right now because of the impending BICI report, which depending on what it concludes and who it implicates may change the political dynamics significantly."

    I don't think anybody can see moves on Wefaq until it is clear where regime is going post BICI and ICC (don't forget they are not out of the picture yet either).

  11. I was always a fan of Al-Wifaq but i don't see why they are rushing things? Why are they "begging" for Sh.Salmans deal? They need to chillax and join the streets. These things take time they don't take a day or two. Why are in they such a hurry? Am i missing something? Will Bahrain Nuke Shia villages or something?

    Answers anyone?

  12. Bahraini propagandist youth reaching out to Egyptians?

  13. Dr Justin,
    You need to write a book,you must document this part of Bahrain history.


    PS:for some reasons I can not comment as I used when I am using a proxy (UltraSurf) since the captcha is not shown,I do not feel safe without proxy.

  14. I liked the part which he says "Both pro and anti government hate me because that shows i'm neutral".

    Honestly, i thought his interview was pretty unbiased. The worst part was when he said the doctors weren't angels and that they "seized" the SMC.

    But what did he mean by "Seized"...? did they use weapons or did they stop taking orders from SMC admin. and follow their own orders and therefore they "seized" the SMC.

    Lets be honest... anti-government protestors wouldn't be happy unless he spend the entire interview trashing the regime which is unrealistic and unprofessional. I don't know what the pro-government tweeters had to say about the interview because i don't follow them but i guess they weren't too happy either.

  15. Looking at the Arab world as a whole, mainly the countries suffering/enjoying the Arab Spring, the ruling tyrannical systems have created opposition parties that are very similar to them. Is the Muslim Brotherhood better than Mubarak? Are the Al-Ahmar's better than Yemen's Salih? Is Al-Wifaq better than Al Khalifah? I think not. These tyrant regimes benefit from the presence of such an opportunistic opposition which only seeks parliamentary seats and power regardless of how they attain those. As a new reader of your blog, I can't seem to figure out where you stand on these issues, Justin -- maybe it's deliberate?! :) I would definitely look forward/be interested in reading your analysis on how the content of the BICI report could reflect on the govt's relation with Al-Wifaq?

  16. Saw this on yahoo front page and knew it was primarily about bahrain: